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R. Kelly Brings His Lover-Man Best to Barclays Center Billboard Lounge: 'Can I Just Be Myself?'
By his own count, R. Kelly wrote 462 songs, each one a potential hit, for his forthcoming 13th album, The Buffet. That’s a lot of hooks about a lot of bottles getting popped, booties getting rubbed on, and clubs being rocked, and even if Kellz is exaggerating, and the number is only 231 -- or hell, 46.2 -- it’s a reminder of why the “Pied Piper of R&B” gets away with shows like the one he gave Tuesday night.
Performing at the new Billboard Lounge in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, Kelly squeezed the juiciest bits of at least 20 songs into his half-hour set, singing over canned backing tracks without the aid of live instruments. He’d spend no longer than a minute or two loving on any given tune, teasing a snippet of verse and maybe chorus before dropping it for something as hot or hotter.
Chomping a stogie and sporting gold shades and a maroon velvet blazer over a black button-up, Kelly opened with “Your Body’s Callin’,” a 1994 single that summed up what was to come. This was expert lover-man karaoke: a format suitable for slow jams like “You Remind Me of Something” -- the one where Kellz compares his lady to his Jeep -- and bangers like “Hotel,” which goes over just fine without rapper Cassidy, the lead artist on that 2003 track.
“I haven’t had enough to drink,” Kelly said about 10 songs in, momentarily stopping the show to sip on something and then kick it a cappella with his “Bump n Grind” remix. It didn’t take much encouraging to get the crowd -- 200 phone-pointing fans who’d somehow scored entry to the exclusive gig -- singing along, which led to some playful taunting from Kelly.
“What the f---?” he asked. “Y’all off-key as a motherf---er.”
Down the stretch came the universally revered “Ignition (Remix),” the brand-new BBQ anthem “Backyard Party,” and a pair of his bubbly Chicago stepping gems, “Happy People” and “Step In the Name of Love,” both champagne in musical form.
With each, Kelly was smooth and confident, the king of a safe space where no one was giving even the slightest bit of thought to questions like that one Vulture asked a few days ago about whether it’s OK to like this accused (but never convicted) sexual predator’s music.
With his new bushy beard, Kelly was Rick Ross with soul, Michael Jackson with masculinity, Marvin Gaye with hip-hop aggression, Prince without all the virtuosic hang-ups and eccentricities that might prevent a super-fast love-‘em-and-leave-‘em show of this nature.
“Can I do what I do on this stage tonight? Kelly asked at one point. “Can I just be myself?” He already knew the answer, but even when you’re a Teflon 48-year-old human hit factory still relevant to hip-hop and grown-folks R&B radio, it must be nice to hear it.